Why is it so hard to make healthy habits stick? Contrary to popular belief, it is not because we lack motivation or willpower, or because we don’t have any self-control.
It’s because we don’t know how to create new healthy habits that become a permanent part of our lives. We don’t know the proper way to stop unhealthy habits and replace them with new healthier ones. We start too big, or we make it too difficult to remember or perform our new desired behavior.
As a result of this, it’s often much easier to revert to old, unhealthy habits (they are habits after all) than to create new healthier habits to replace them.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Following are some strategies you can use to make your new healthy habits stick:
1. Start with one small habit that you can build upon
Don’t try to change too much out of the gate. If trying to go Vegan, for example, start out with eliminating animal products from one meal a week. Then one day a week (perhaps you could join the Meatless Monday movement). Then two days a week. Soon enough, you’ll have reached your goal of going vegan and it will become a permanent way of living for you.
2. Crowd out the bad stuff
If you are trying to eat healthier, don’t try to immediately eliminate all the bad stuff you’ve been consuming and replace it with healthier options. Instead, crowd out the bad stuff by adding in one new healthy food into your diet. Perhaps start by eating one serving of vegetables or fruit per day. Then next week increase that to two or three servings, until you’re consuming the recommended 5 daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
3. Don’t try to go cold turkey (in most cases)
There are very few people who can go cold turkey and successfully eliminate a bad habit. For the rest of us, again you’ll want to start small. If you’re drinking a six-pack of soda per day, pledge to cut out one can per day at first. Combining that with the concept of crowding out, you could replace that can with one 16-ounce glass of water. Slowly replace one can per day over a period of weeks with a healthier beverage until you’re no longer drinking any soda.
One caveat to this rule: If you discover that you’re allergic to dairy, well then you must cut out all dairy immediately. What you can do is replace the dairy in your diet with non-dairy alternatives, such as almond or coconut milk, vegan cheese, or a dairy-free buttery spread.
4. Only introduce one new habit at a time
You may wish to make several positive lifestyle changes and that is great. But experts in the field of habit change strongly suggest you only try to make one change at a time. If you try to make too many changes all at once, you’ll overwhelm yourself and revert back to old habits, because it’s easier.
5. Set a reminder
You could add a reminder on your phone or calendar if you have trouble remembering to do the new habit. A reminder could also be a visual cue, or you could associate the new habit with one you’re already doing. The existing habit acts as the trigger for you to perform the new habit. For example, if you’re having trouble remembering to floss your teeth, leave the floss sitting out next to your toothbrush where you can’t miss it.
6. Plan ahead
If you want to get into the habit of preparing a home cooked meal every night, then you’ll need to plan ahead. You’ll need to make a menu for the week and make sure you have all the necessary ingredients on hand. You may want to take it a step further and prep your meals in advance so that all the ingredients are pre-measured, chopped, and ready to go on those busy nights. You can schedule a time over the weekend to do your meal prepping for the upcoming week, or even have freezer meal parties with friends to make it social and fun.
7. Utilize services that will help you reach your goals
Using the previous example of prep-ahead meals, instead of creating your own menus you can subscribe to a service like Plan to Eat, That Clean Life, or eMeals, which sends you weekly meal plans and shopping lists. And if you don’t want to do your own shopping either, you can utilize services like Blue Apron and Green Chef that will ship your food to you along with instructions on how to cook the meals. These services can be pricey, but if you can afford to then by all means, go for it. It could even be temporary until cooking your own meals has become a habit and you feel confident that you can do your meal planning and shopping yourself.
8. Make it easy NOT to fall back into old habits
If you’re trying to cut processed junk food from your diet, don’t stock your pantry with cookies, pop tarts, and potato chips. Get rid of them now! If you’re tempted when you drive past a Dunkin’ Donuts on your way to work, change your route so you’re not enticed. Try to remove as many temptations and triggers as you can while you’re trying to incorporate new healthier habits in their place.
9. Announce your goals
If you keep your goals and aspirations to yourself, you’re much less likely to stick to them, because no one would know you failed. By announcing it to the world, however, now people will be interested to see your progress, and they will also help hold you accountable if you slip. Tell your spouse or other trusted family members, post it on Facebook, or shout if from the rooftops. Just make sure you tell someone.
10. Find a partner for support
If you find it tough to drag yourself to the gym first thing in the morning, or don’t feel like running when there’s inclement weather, get a partner. Find a friend who will work out or run with you. That way you will both hold each other accountable. You don’t want to let your friend down so you’re much less likely to bail when you don’t feel like working out.
11. Use a gadget or app to track your progress
Having a way to see your daily progress will help you stay on track. If you’re trying to walk more you could get a pedometer or a fitness tracker like a Fitbit or Bellabeat. For tracking food and calorie intake, you can use a food journaling app like My Fitness Pal or Lose It.
12. Hire a coach or personal trainer
If you need extra motivation or accountability, you may want to consider working with a personal trainer to keep you on track with your exercise goals, or a health coach to help you reach your health and nutrition objectives. Coaches and trainers can assist you in setting achievable goals, and act as supportive mentors who will motivate you to achieve those goals.
13. Positive self-talk
Everyone likes to receive compliments for a job well done. You should compliment yourself whenever you perform a new habit through positive self-talk. For example, if you’re trying to incorporate daily exercise into your routine, then tell yourself “Good job” or “That was excellent progress today” at the end of your workout.
14. Play games to make the habits fun
Making your new habits fun is a great way to ensure they will stick. You can use gamification (the application of game playing elements such as point scoring, competition with others, and prizes to other areas of activity) to not only make habits fun, but to earn rewards. Habitica and Rally Engage are apps you can use to make habits fun and also to get support from a community of peers who will cheer you on.
15. Look at the big picture
Don’t forget to review your long-term goals periodically and remind yourself of the bigger rewards you’ll achieve by performing your new healthy habits. For example, by losing [insert desired number here] pounds of weight, the bigger rewards you may experience as a result of the weight loss are feeling more vibrant, getting off certain medications, and being able to fit into your favorite clothes again. This can also be a great reminder during the day-to-day grind when you’re wondering why you committed to running a 5K, or while you’re watching all your friends eat a piece of chocolate cake and you’re eating fresh berries.
16. Celebrate milestones
You won’t experience any of those big rewards immediately, so you also want to celebrate milestones along the way. For every 10 pounds you lose, for instance, you could reward yourself with a trip to the spa or a special treat (just make sure it’s healthy!)
17. Remember it’s OK if you slip
Everyone will slip up now and then. Life happens, things come up, and that’s OK. The most important thing is to not beat yourself up about it; simply get back on track as soon as you can. One way to prevent that from happening in the first place is to do an abbreviated version of the habit if you don’t have time to perform the full duration. For example, walk around the block if you don’t have time to walk for the full 30 minutes, or do a few push-ups and crunches at home if you can’t make it to the gym that day. Even doing that little bit will help to reinforce the habit.
I hope these tips will help you to create new healthy habits that stick. Did I miss anything? What other tips have worked for you? Let me know in the comments.